TAMPA, Fla. – Of all places, the answer to a question I’d been pondering about four years came in a casual conversation over Memorial Day weekend.
Since about 2009, I’ve been wondering why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had trouble drawing big crowds to Raymond James Stadium and why there seems to be so much indifference about a franchise that used to be the darling of the region.
For four years, we have tossed out theories here that pointed at the team’s on-field performance, the economy and the transient nature of Florida. I have no doubt that all of those are contributing factors. But, all the while, I believed there was something more, something deeper, to the equation.
I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then, by chance, I ran into an old friend at a charity event Sunday. With one sentence, he started to put it all into perspective.
"I hope this is the year I can fall back in love with the Bucs," he said.
This is a guy who was as much of a die-hard Bucs fan as you could find when I lived here back in the late 1990s. Heck, he even sang the national anthem before a game and called it the proudest moment of his life.
So how, I asked, did he fall out of love with the Bucs?
His answer set off bells. He said that, in the 1970s and '80s, the Bucs were new and, no matter how bad they often were, he had to love them. Then, coach Tony Dungy came along in the mid-1990s and started winning games and, in the words of my friend, became part of "the fabric of the community."
Dungy left, but many of his players stayed and helped Jon Gruden win a Super Bowl, and things remained rosy for a while. But sometime toward the end of the Gruden era, my friend said, the Bucs stopped being lovable.
He has a point. For the past few years, the Bucs have been bland -- on and off the field. The team has lacked star power and hasn’t won a playoff game since it won the Super Bowl more than a decade ago. Even general manager Mark Dominik said soon after coach Greg Schiano was hired last year that one of the franchise’s goals was to give the fan base a team it could love again.
Maybe my friend and a lot of other disenchanted Bucs fans are about to get their wish. They’re far from a finished product, but I look at the Bucs and I see a lot of ingredients fans can fall in love with.
I see six prime candidates who could bring back the magic:
Doug Martin: The running back had a spectacular rookie season and should only be better with guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph at full health. Back in the day, Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Cadillac Williams were all runners who were loved by Tampa Bay fans. Each of them had some great moments. But, when I look at Martin, I see a guy who could be better than any of them on the field. I also see a guy with a magnetic personality and a great nickname ("The Muscle Hamster"). This region is waiting for a superstar, and I think Martin, partly because he plays an offensive skill position and partly because he has some charisma, is the first in line to fill that role.
Gerald McCoy: Now that I think more about this concept of falling out of love with the Bucs, I think McCoy’s biggest curse might have been that he came along at the worst possible time. Drafted third overall in 2010 and possessing a big personality, the defensive tackle instantly would have been loved under ordinary circumstances. But McCoy arrived at a time when fans were suspicious about everything involving the Bucs. He started his career under a microscope, and it didn’t help when injuries interrupted his first two seasons. There was talk of McCoy being a "bust." But he put a Pro Bowl season on the table last year, and maybe it’s time for fans to stop doubting and start accepting McCoy.
Darrelle Revis: When the Bucs traded for Revis before the draft, I was surprised by the reaction around town because it usually started with something like, "That’s a lot to give up for a guy with a bad knee." Yeah, it’s true that Revis is coming off major knee surgery. But the Bucs wouldn’t have made the trade or handed Revis a huge new contract if their medical people weren’t pretty certain the knee will be fine. If it is, the Bucs will have the best cornerback in football and perhaps the biggest superstar this franchise has ever had. When a cloud has been hanging over your favorite team for a long time, it’s tough to envision a best-case scenario. But maybe that’s what the Bucs got with Revis.
Lavonte David: At least with David, some fans started looking past the clouds last year. As a rookie, David drew some comparisons to Brooks. He stepped right, made plays and quickly was running the defense. Aside from Lee Roy Selmon, Brooks might be the most loved Tampa Bay player ever. If David ends up being even anything close to what Brooks was in the long term, the Bucs have a keeper.
Josh Freeman: Coming off a season in which he set numerous franchise records, Freeman still is a question mark in the eyes of fans and, apparently, his coach. That’s somewhat understandable because there were a few times when Freeman was really bad last year. Still, there were enough good moments last year, and throughout his career, that fans should be able to look at the potential and see the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay never has had. Can he firmly claim that role? That last part is up to Freeman. Schiano has danced around his feelings about Freeman, and he drafted quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round. If your coach isn’t sold on the quarterback, how can you expect your fans to be? If Freeman can put it all together this season, though, he’ll get a big new contract and everything will be fine in Tampa Bay.
Schiano: The sense I get is that fans don’t run hot or cold when it comes to Schiano because the coach remains a mystery. I’m still not sure that Schiano’s collegiate style will succeed in the NFL, but I’ve seen some encouraging signs. Like Dungy, Schiano doesn’t want guys who don’t fit his no-nonsense style (see Kellen Winslow, Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount). But Schiano doesn’t need to be exactly like Dungy. He just needs to deliver wins, and fans will warm to him. They’ll also fall back in love with the Bucs.